MADRID | The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Biomedicine category went in this fourth edition to Alexander Varshavsky of California Institute of Technology.
According to the jury, Varshavsky’s research has spawned a whole new field in biomedicine, since it is now known that defects in protein degradation mechanism underlie a wide variety of pathologies. His work, as such, has a bearing on the understanding of cancers, immune system disorders and neurodegenerative diseases,
“including Parkinson’s”, as the jury’s citation points out. “It is likely that drugs that target components of the system will be of wide significance in medicine.”
Varshavsky (Moscow, 1946) discovered that the ubiquitins proteins act as labels signaling proteins for destruction, as well as revealing their source of specificity.
“Varshavsky showed how ubiquitin (…) is attached to other proteins, marking them for destruction. This system is essential for normal cellular functions, ranging from the control of gene transcription, protein synthesis and DNA repair to cell division and the response to stress.”
While some proteins remain stable for days, others turn over in a matter of hours. The process of protein degradation is accordingly vital to the life of the cell, and it was Alexander Varshavsky’s research that uncovered its inner workings.
Varshavsky offered some glimpses of the scope and importance of his work during a phone conversation, after hearing of the award:
“I feel privileged to have contributed to the birth of this field, and to partake in its later development. This arena grew rapidly in the 1990s and has become, by now, a vast and diverse field.”
The search for ubiquitin-based therapies and drugs is a particularly thriving area.
“There is a great deal of ongoing medical research, at both pharmaceutical companies and universities, to design small molecules that either inhibit or augment functional aspects of the ubiquitin system”, Varshavsky relates.
Alexander Varshavsky was nominated for the award by 2006 Nobel Chemistry laureate Roger Kornberg of Stanford Medical School, California; Ulrich Hartl, of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (Marstinried, Germany); and Elliot Meyerowitz, of California Institute of Technology (United States).
The name of the new laureate was announced this morning in the Marqués de Salamanca Palace, Madrid headquarters of the BBVA Foundation, at an event attended by the chair of the jury, Nobel medicine laureate Werner Arber, and Rafael Pardo, Director of the BBVA Foundation.
The eight categories of the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, each carrying prize money of 400,000 euros, reflect both the knowledge map of the early 21st century and the great global challenges of the day. Last year’s award in this category went to Shinya Yamanaka Yamanaka for showing that it is possible to reprogram differentiated cells back into a state that is characteristic of pluripotent cells.